Last year when I talked a bit about difficulty in video games, I mentioned the Dark Souls as an exemplar of difficult video game design. More recently, I had opportunity to play Dark Souls 3. I finished it too. So here are my thoughts.
Like other adventure games, Dark Souls 3 is essentially a power fantasy. It gives the player a sense of increasing power over time. It begins by disempowering the player, beating them down over and over. But the player is empowered to eventually succeed. And what makes this experience so effective, is that the success depends almost entirely on the player’s skill and cleverness, instead of their character’s level. After completing the game for the first time, you can start over from the beginning and find it significantly easier.
Something that this game makes me think about, what even is difficulty? Does it mean it’s mentally taxing? Does it mean it’s frustrating? Does it mean very few people can succeed?
In the context of Dark Souls, people seem to think difficulty means “You die a lot,” but I’m not sure this is the right way to think about it. New players die a lot, but instead of thinking of it as failure, you could think of it as a necessary part of the learning process. One of the Dark Souls taglines is “Prepare to die”, which is literally telling players that dying is a necessary part of the game. Dying is even a essential component of the narrative–you’re a cursed undead who comes back to life each time you die. It’s not like other games where if you die, the universe rewinds and the game says “let’s pretend that never happened”. In other words, dying in Dark Souls is diagetic.
Personally, I had the greatest sense of difficulty not when I was dying a lot, but when I felt the most frustrated. Earlier I linked to an article called “Eleven Flavors of Frustration“, and several of those flavors seem relevant. Particularly having to start over, not getting anywhere, and being forced to repeat the same thing over and over.
If you check online for tips, you may experience yet another flavor of frustration, where you find that the thing you’re having a hard time with is considered easy by everyone else. For example, I had a hard time with the Deacons of the Deep boss, which most people consider to be one of the easiest bosses. Nobody could provide any sort of useful advice until I finally found someone who said the boss can be difficult if you don’t use a weapon with good crowd control. Looking back, I didn’t actually die that much to the boss, but I experienced it as difficult because looking online was very frustrating.
Dark Souls fans have kind of a poor reputation for dealing with newbies. The most common response to a newbie asking for help is “git gud”, which is a flippant way of saying it’s the newbie’s fault. Or perhaps it’s an admission that they have nothing to say which would help. Having watched some videos where people earnestly give advice, I agree that no, there’s nothing they can say that would help. It’s quite clear that a lot of skill in Dark Souls 3 is based on intuition (what you might call System 1) and not deliberative thought. Experts say “git gud” because they literally can’t explain how to play better.
It probably doesn’t help that strategy depends a lot on your character’s build. Like when I had a hard time with Deacons of the Deep because of my weapon choice. I also found that while I found the dogs to be really easy, lots of other players have trouble with them, I think because their characters don’t have shields. My impression is that lots of players experience weird difficulty spikes throughout the game, but the difficulty spikes occur in different places for different players. It probably has to do with build or play style, and nobody has sorted it out.
I do wish Dark Souls content creators would have an ounce of awareness of the problem, and think really hard about how to give useful combat tips. Just recording yourself beating monsters doesn’t cut it. One specific thing I wish someone would do, is methodically go through a single enemy’s entire move-set, explaining the tells and how the attacks can be avoided. But nobody seems to have even considered it.
My experience with the game was that the combat was often frustrating, and usually the solution was to just keep on trying until I built enough intuition to win. And even then I wasn’t really sure what my intuition was doing. I think this sort of game design makes sense, because not all players are capable of deliberating their way through a problem, but most are capable of eventually building intuition. But personally I found it dissatisfying. If I don’t understand what I did, I don’t feel very accomplished about it. Maybe that’s why I prefer difficult puzzle games instead.
Overall, I liked the game, because of the dense and maze-like environments, and the slow tension-filled exploration. But I didn’t care for the core conceit of the game, the frustrating difficulty and intuition-based mastery. If I want more exploration-based video games, I can look elsewhere for that kind of thing.